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Keep law school in southcentral Pennsylvania

Penn State Daily Collegian
Friday, July 30, 2004

By Thomas Hylton

Ever since the proposal was first revealed last November, the Daily Collegian has looked with favor on moving all or part of the Dickinson School of Law to University Park.

Dickinson students would enjoy the vast resources of the main campus, including collaborative studies in everything from business to biotechnology. Over time, the law school could join the nation´s elite, enhancing Penn State´s prestige and attracting the best and the brightest.

As a lifelong Pennsylvanian who enjoyed an affordable, quality education at a state-owned college, and whose taxes now help subsidize the education of students at Penn State and other state-supported universities, I would like to offer a different perspective.

By breaking its word and trying to rob another community of a treasured possession, Penn State is demeaning itself and forsaking its mission to promote the welfare of all Pennsylvanians through educational outreach and public service.  

Let´s look at the record.

For years, Penn State wanted a law school, but starting one from scratch would have been difficult, expensive, and time consuming. All seven existing law schools in Pennsylvania were already affiliated with a university. All, that is, except one: the Dickinson School of Law.

Founded in 1834 in Carlisle, Dickinson is the state´s oldest law school. Its alumni include governors, U.S. senators, judges at the federal, state, and local level, and other civic leaders who have served Pennsylvania for generations.  

A merger with the Dickinson School of Law, therefore, would be a marriage made in heaven. Penn State would gain a law school with a proud heritage and record of public service to Pennsylvania. Dickinson would gain access to Penn State´s cutting edge technology, academic resources, and economies of scale by consolidating business operations.

But Dickinson wanted to remain in Carlisle.   That was an important caveat. When the merger was announced in 1997, the dean of Dickinson wrote in the Harrisburg Patriot News , "We will continue to be the Dickinson School of Law, and we will remain in Carlisle. There are no plans to increase the size of our facilities or enrollment. Our students will continue to work with the same talented teachers and the same supportive staff."

Meanwhile, also writing in the Patriot News , Penn State President Graham Spanier noted that Dickinson "joins an institution that is not geographically bound, but rather provides many of its important services in diverse communities throughout the state.  

"Tradition is important," Spanier said. "Penn State will remain particularly sensitive to the pledge of being a good neighbor to the people of Carlisle and a good steward of the Dickinson reputation that thousands of people have spent so many years establishing.  

"I am particularly pleased that this merger provides Penn State yet another opportunity to serve state government and the people of the greater Harrisburg area."

Circumstances can change. But what happened, just six years later, to justify Penn State´s proposal to move Dickinson to the main campus? The fact is, nothing happened. Dickinson is thriving. Last year, it received 2,422 applications for a class of 200. A higher percentage of its graduates passed the bar exam on the first try than the graduates of any other law school in the state.

Dickinson students continue to enjoy internships made possible by Carlisle´s proximity to numerous county courthouses, the state courts in Harrisburg, and the federal courts in Washington.

Dickinson is an essential part of Carlisle´s heritage and sense of place. It provides about 220 good jobs and $20 million in spending for central Pennsylvania´s economy. It increases the region´s quality of life. As the school grows, it can strengthen Carlisle by adaptively reusing buildings that might otherwise deteriorate, such as the soon-to-be-vacant Carlisle Hospital.  

Penn State first proposed relocating Dickinson to University Park in a confidential memo to the Dickinson Board of Governors, who must approve the move. The plan became public only because it was leaked to the local newspaper, the Carlisle Sentinel .   When the Dickinson community resisted the proposal, Penn State offered $60 million for a new facility on the main campus but only $10 million to renovate and expand the Carlisle campus.

As the board of governors still seemed inclined to keep the school in Carlisle, President Spanier last month proposed two campuses, with a downsized satellite remaining in Carlisle. But given Penn State´s actions to date, that seems like a temporary sop, with the likelihood that Carlisle´s campus will eventually wither away.   In any case, Carlisle - and Dickinson - will never be the same.

Chief among the reasons offered for relocation is to boost Dickinson´s ranking to the top tier of the nation´s law schools. But even if that would happen, why is it necessary? Is Penn State´s mission to nurture a handful of elites, or to serve the larger community?

The vast majority of Penn State students are not destined to leverage billion-dollar deals on Wall Street, break new ground on the Supreme Court, or cure cancer. They will teach in our schools, design our streets and buildings, manage our businesses, and provide our health care. They will serve on our non-profits, our school boards and our town councils. They will not be superstars, but they will be the backbone of our communities.

Dickinson has turned out good lawyers and good citizens for nearly two centuries. There is no reason it cannot continue to do so from its home in Carlisle.

Penn State is supposed to serve Pennsylvania - all of Pennsylvania.  It doesn´t need to win a law school glamour contest, but it does need to keep its commitments. We can´t all be super-achievers, but we can all be honorable people.



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